Joseph struts his dreamcoat at Cahn Auditorium

 

Joseph at Music Theater Works. (Brett Beiner photo)

3 stars

“Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is the 2019 holiday fashion choice for Music Theater Works in Evanston and swan song of retiring stage director Rudy Hogenmiller.

The upbeat Vegas style variety show extravaganza commonly known as “Joseph” is – and in my mind – the least refined of the blockbuster musicals of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice.

None-the-less, it enjoys wide acclaim and provides an evening’s worth of solid cheerful entertainment.

Linda Madonia who has served in the past as assistant conductor and pianist for this company leads the MTW orchestra, which as always, is a joy to hear.

Choreographer Clayton Cross steals the show with his exceptionally well performed cast and dance crew who keep this production constantly in motion.

Based on an Old Testament Bible story, Joseph (Brian Acker) the favorite son of Hebrew patriarch Jacob (John Cardone) is given a beautiful coat of many colors by his father, thus sending his eleven brothers into a jealous conspiracy to be rid of him.

Compounding his trouble is Joseph’s gift of prophecy in which he has suggested his own ultimate superiority over his brothers. That results in his being kidnapped and sold into slavery by his siblings as an attempt to change their fate

However as fate would have it, this only leads to the fulfillment of Joseph’s rise to power.

Narrator Samantha Behen opens the play by introducing the story, Sunday school style, to a group of children who remain on stage as a chorus throughout the production. Behen returns periodically to advance the story-line and provide continuity.

Tommy Thurston’s Elvis imitation as the Pharaoh is a crowd pleaser and MTW veteran Cardone hams it up (in a good way) as Potiphar the local Prince or chieftain who gives Joseph his first big break in Egypt. That is before the lad is undermined by Potiphar’s wife (Sarah VanBindsbergen) who can’t keep her hands off the attractive young man.

Acker is perfectly typecast and does yeoman’s work in the title role but does not dominate the production. This is very much an ensemble with no one performer really soaking up all of the light.

Each of the twenty-four or so campy musical numbers are performed tongue-in-cheek in various genres including standard ballad, pop-rock, folk, country, and others which makes this a kind of vaudeville style revue that harkens back more to the musicals of the 1920s and 1930s than those of the fifties and sixties.

This however is part of the genius of Webber who is credited by many for saving musical theater in the 1970s by introducing more contemporary and diverse musical sounds combined with epic stories.

In spite of “Joseph’s” popularity I don’t feel there is any one break-out musical number on the level of Memory from “Cats,” The Music of the Night from “Phantom” or I Don’t Know How to Love Him from “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

My personal favorite was “Those Canaan Days” in which the brothers lament their hard times while considering that maybe Joseph was not so bad after all. This is done in a French bistro style like a sad drinking song.

“Any Dream Will Do” is the finale number and does a good job of leaving the audience in an optimistic mood.

The multilevel set design by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod augmented by the lighting design of Andrew H. Myers provides visual drama and needed space for this large scale spectacle.

Robert Kuhn’s costumes are also spectacular beginning with Joseph’s flamboyant Technicolor outerwear, the brother’s desert nomad apparel and including the slinky and tastefully naughty gowns of the ladies of Pharaoh’s court. After all, “It’s good to be King.”

In the light of today’s penchant for parity it may be challenging for some to reconcile what might be interpreted as misogynistic overtones. However, this is a play that is based on a male dominated Old Testament story written in the height of the 1960’s go-go era (think Austin Powers), so must be understood in the context of a period piece.

There are no significant female roles. And in-fact, the one role of Mrs. Potiphar, is that of seductress while the narrator is portrayed in the traditional role of teacher. Other women appear as wives and concubines. This was not considered unconventional at the time.

Bringing attention to this issue may be criticized as taking the fun out of seeing this show but it is one of the challenges for a company like Music Theater Works whose mission is to champion beloved musical theater productions many of which may be in conflict with current cultural sensibilities.

Perhaps it is unfair to project this burden onto a local theater company but as we hope to introduce this theater genre to a younger audience we need to be prepared to address what may be construed as inconsistencies and be ready to make this a teachable moment if necessary.

DETAILS: “Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” presented by Music Theater Works is at the Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston,  through Dec. 31, 2019. Running time: aout 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission. For ticket and other information call (847) 920-5360 or visit MusicTheaterWorks.

Reno Lovison

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

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